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U.S. death toll in Iraq hits 500

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The 500th U.S. soldier to die in Iraq since the war began was killed Saturday when a convoy from the 4th Infantry Division was sweeping for improvised explosive devices just north of Baghdad and one of the homemade bombs exploded.

In all, three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi civil defense workers were killed by the blast, and two other U.S. soldiers were wounded. That brought the total number of U.S. soldiers who've died since the beginning of the war to 500, of whom 346 died from hostile actions and 154 from non-hostile causes, according to the Defense Department. Most deaths have occurred since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1.

In addition, 100 American troops have died in Afghanistan, with less than one-third by hostile fire.

The explosion Saturday, outside the town of Taji, hit the first Bradley Fighting Vehicle in the group, setting the vehicle aflame. Soldiers who responded to the scene caught three people driving off in a white truck, in which they found bomb-making materials.

The death toll has become a fact of life in Iraq, a country that seems more and more to be settling into a long-term guerilla war that military officials prefer to characterize as a "low-intensity conflict."

Word of the death comes daily. More than eight months after the war began, gunfire at night is still common in the capital. Across the country soldiers are being shot, civilians are caught in crossfires and bombs rip through busy streets.

During the last week, for example:

_ An Iraqi teenager was killed and five bystanders wounded Friday when a bomb exploded that U.S. military and Iraqi police were trying to defuse.

_ Seven Iraqis were hurt when attackers hurled hand grenades at the government building in Hawijah, in northern Iraq, on Wednesday morning. At the time, a city council meeting was going on inside.

_ A 4th ID soldier was shot and wounded in the town of Abu Kharma, also in the north, on Wednesday. In the firefight that followed, four attackers were killed.

_ An 8th Infantry Regiment patrol in Samarra was shot at with automatic weapons on Tuesday. They responded, killing four and wounding one.

It is also a country in the midst of immense transitions.

The top U.S. representative in Iraq, Paul Bremer, is in Washington, talking with Bush administration officials and the United Nations about trying to work out some sort of compromise about the U.N.'s role in the upcoming transfer of power to a new Iraqi government.

That process, slated for July 1, is supposed to consist of a countrywide caucus system, but an influential Shiite Muslim leader, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani, has called for direct elections and promised unrest otherwise. Many people in both Iraq and the United States fear that an angry Sistani could arouse hundreds of thousands of Shiites who, although not happy with the U.S. occupation, have been relatively peaceful.

As the political wrangling goes on, the U.S. military is planning to reduce its troops from about 130,000 to 105,000 by June, with most of the 105,000 being new soldiers rotated into Iraq. Except for one group of 1st Infantry Division soldiers in the west, every other American military element in the nation will be transitioning out in the biggest troop rotation since World War II.

The Army is billing the troop movement as Operation Iraqi Freedom part two. The new force will ride in more armored Humvees and fewer tanks, in recognition that the post-war fighting is done in streets and alleyways, not on a large field of battle.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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